Thee Comic Column #22: Karen Berger

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I think it’s appropriate to dedicate an episode of TCC to Karen Berger, who until December 3rd of last year was the Executive Editor & Senior Vice President of DC Comic’s Vertigo imprint, when she announced she would be stepping down.

First: is this a harbinger? I’ve heard from insider-type people for years that DC execs – or rather parent company Warner Bros. execs – were chomping at the bit to get rid of the mature-themed imprint because of the creator-owned platform upon which it operates. DC’s problem, and Warner’s by extension, is that the playing field for comics has risen out of the children-themed sidelines it occupied until about mid-to-late 90’s when film tech became sophisticated enough to transition these stories and characters onto the big screen where they now all but own Hollywood. Marvel can’t seem to make a bad film from its properties, but other than their Batman franchise DC just cannot hold their own (green lantern? Nope). I’ve long thought Vertgio offers DC’s only viable course for cinematic development, as their superhero characters – with only a few exceptions – kinda suck*. And it was under Karen Berger that that particular avenue was paved. Berger helped nourish Alan Moore’s sophisticated and comparatively risky (at the time) take on Swamp Thing into something iconic during its time, and through the success of its tone DC saw the opportunity to launch a serious, mature line of comics.

Vertigo was born.

Ms. Berger then helped turn the new imprint into a parallel mythos for the company, one that didn’t stand totally apart from the regular one, but fostered ideas that were more adult and… occult in nature. I’ve always thought of Vertigo as the punk rock younger sibling to DC’s regular Universe’s geeky first born* status. As Vertigo developed under Ms. Berger’s watchful and intuitive eye (she scouted talent and helped launch or appropriate books and characters that fit the tone they were creating) Vertigo blossomed and – dare I say it – eventually defined the late 80’s/90’s for a lot of readers’ who had outgrown tights and capes. Sure, today even mainstream superhero books flirt with or full-on embrace a Vertigo-esque tone – for that we can thank the writers and the editorial staffs who have progressed with the tide of changes that began, either directly or indirectly, with Karen Berger.

Eventually Ol’ Swampy and his buddy John Constantine shared a logical, cause-and-effect laden Universe with Timothy Hunter, Death, Dream, Desire, Shade the Changing Man and countless other left-0f-center, darker denizens. With Ms. Berger as a liason to the DCU great little trysts could happen that fortold of where the industry would go: JLA villian Doctor Destiny ended up with The Dream King’s amulet and Death paid a merciful visit to an aging, failing superhero named Element Girl. Whether this was part of an uber-vision on the part of Ms. Berger or simply the organic progression of things, it helped grow the art of mainstream comics. Many creators who operated under the Vertigo banner – from Neil Gaiman to Grant Morrison – have sung the praises of Ms. Berger’s editorial know-how and friendship from the moment she “scouted” them into their gigs. By giving these guys their opening chances into comics I definitely credit Berger as being largely responsible – again directly or indirectly –  for the shape of comics today, as someone like Morrison and his wide-screen, Meta approach has literally changed mainstream comics forever.

So now that she’s gone, what will become of Vertigo? Hellblazer, the imprint’s longest running title is coming to an end so that its iconic protagonist can be streamlined into the regular DCU (yeah, the new 52 definitely seemed to sever the already mostly-forgotten relationship between Vertigo and the regular DCU for good). Initially I thought the Dark Justice League idea of kind of re-birthing the classic Vertigo characters in a darker pocket of the new 52 was a cool idea, but with their Vertigo counterparts gone and the editorial direction seemingly more DCU than Vertigo, well… It’s no secret that as many of the original Vertigo books ran their course the imprint was able to successfully transition their tone to a more HBO-series feel at the beginning of the oughts. The popularity of books like Y the Last Man and 100 Bullets had a lot to do with this. But now that many of those are ending, I can only imagine that Vertigo’s future is, more than ever, uncertain. If that is the case, come what may, I’d like to take the opportunity now to raise a pint to Ms. Berger and thank her for not only nurturing many of my favorite books and authors over the years, but for also helping comics grow up with me. If I had to continue to read books with the tone and maturity of some of the stuff I grew up with in the pages of superhero books, well, nostalgia doesn’t hold up new things, it only endears one to the past.

Can’t find a comic shop? You can always use old reliable Comic Shop Locator at 1-800-COMIC-BOOK. Or you can take some of my recommendations. If you live in the greater Chicagoland area I recommend any of the wonderful four locations of Amazing Fantasy Books. In Los Angeles it’s The Comic Bug. Las Vegas it’s Alternate Reality Comics. San Francisco? Try the Isotope Comic Lounge and if you happen to venture a little further North I’d say you have to visit The Escapist Comic Book Store in Berkley (with the wonderful Dark Carnival Books next door and owned by the same folks). Read on!!!

*I know, I’m incurring hatred here from some, because there are those who do love characters like Blue *ahem* Beetle and, haha, Aquaman.

Shawn C Baker

Shawn C Baker

Shawn lives in Los Angeles where he co-hosts Drinking w/ Comics, writes screenplays and fiction and has been known to drink quite a bit of beer. Good beer.

2 Responses to Thee Comic Column #22: Karen Berger
  1. Joe Grez

    JGrez Reply

    Shawn, I have to imagine that she will surface somewhere else. Perhaps starting her own line? Any word on that or thoughts?

    • Shawn C Baker

      SBaker Reply

      I don’t know. My gut feeling is no, but I haven’t really approached my following of this story with an eye open for that. She’s been on Vertigo alone for twenty years and in comics since something like ’79 so this could well be it. But then again, as we all know, comics are hard to put down.

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